MLB Trade Rumors has reported that the Orioles, all hot and bothered from their improbable fast start, are all set to hand out something resembling a six-year, $85 million contract extension to Adam Jones, their 26-year-old center fielder. Adam Jones is the kind of player whose actual ability level is somewhat difficult to judge because all those tools he has haven’t really translated into concrete results until a few weeks ago. Since his first call-up at the ripe age of 20, Jones has been exhibiting that he has natural speed and power. Until recently, it’s been hard to confirm that those traits are something he can put into practice, but even now it’s hard to know if the numbers are here to stay.
There’s no denying what Jones has done so far in 2012. The Oriole centerpiece has hit .311/.357/.601 with a .408 wOBA and 14 home runs in his first 196 PA. He’s also played a very good center field according to UZR, though that same metric pans his performance at the position in most seasons. So yeah, Jones is doing everything right during a season that happens to correspond with his rightful peak years. How good this extension looks depends largely on whether or not this is a new performance level for Jones or simply a hot streak in the career of a talented but annoyingly inconsistent ballplayer.
Jones has been getting incrementally better compared to the rest of the league since the beginning of his age 23 season. His OPS+ figures, which measure his OPS against the league average with 100 representing average, have increased from 105 to 108 to 113 from 2009-2011. That’s a good sign, but those numbers aren’t gaudy enough or dramatically improved enough to suggest Jones is an elite player. The kind of lines he’s put up are nice enough to have from a tough defensive position like center, but the Orioles have to hope this season’s Jones is here to stay.
At the plate, Jones will have to justify his money by showing the gains he’s made in contact and power are for real. Jones has never slugged more than .466 (2011) or posted an isolated power figure higher than .185 (same year). He’s also consistently had above-average BABIP numbers, but he’s never hit for a higher average than .284. Normally I wouldn’t reference batting average with any more reverence than a player’s hat size or love of children’s books, but with Jones it’s especially relevant to the man’s on-base percentage because he does not draw walks ever.
It’s pretty tough to excavate the annals of baseball history and come away with very many players who have been great while hacking impatiently. Sure, you’ve got your Vladimir Guerrero, but you also have your Jeff Francoeur. Jones seemed to have taken a big step forward with his plate discipline in 2009 when he bumped his walk rate up to a still-not-any-good 6.9% from 4.5% the year before. All of that progress was invalidated the next two seasons though, as Jones saw his walk rates sink to 3.7% and 4.7% respectively. Perhaps I’m being short-sighted here, but it’s hard for me to believe in Jones when he isn’t showing marked improvement with his batting eye. Some players, like the aforementioned Guerrero and Pablo Sandoval, were able to convert me because they were just flat-out raking their entire careers. Jones, who shares the impatience of these players, hasn’t hit with the same gusto they possessed until about eight weeks ago.
What the Orioles have done extremely well here is make sure that their contract extension hedges its bets. They didn’t plop down the massive extension many (including me) were expecting, instead inking Jones to a pretty reasonable deal. Sure, the pact pays more than Jones has proved he’s been worth at this point in his career (he’s never been worth 3 WAR in a season according to FanGraphs), but the early returns on 2012 show that maybe he’s managed to level up. The previous incarnation of Jones is probably worth around $10 million per season, but the Orioles are cool with paying a little more now that Jones finds himself smack dab in the middle of his peak years and hitting the snot out of baseballs. The worst case scenario for Baltimore is that Jones regresses back to his past self (one would imagine he’d need some sort of time travel device) and the team is overpaying him a little bit. The best case scenario is that he turns into some sort of slightly-diminished version of Matt Kemp. I’d say that’s a pretty admirable risk-reward position to be in.